Wilson Miner is director of digital design for The California Sunday Magazine. Previously, he was a product designer at Facebook, and lead the design team at Rdio from 2009–2012. Before that, he started a company called EveryBlock, which he describes as “a news journalism data experiment” funded by grants and eventually acquired by msnbc.com. He also worked at Apple doing marketing design on Apple.com. Miner originally got his start in journalism and design ten years ago working with the online team at a local newspaper.
Miner’s current side project is Bear Shark, a digital card game. About the game, he says, “It’s a two-player competitive card game. I loved nerdy fantasy card games growing up, and I wanted to see if I could make a game that captured what’s fun about those games in a much simpler format, without a lot of the stuff that can be alienating for people who aren’t into mega-nerdy fantasy tropes. It’s like Magic: The Gathering for people who play Threes.” Below he offers four points of advice around side projects based on his experience.
1. Good ideas are the ones that won’t go away.
I save ideas for projects in a notebook and the ones that I keep coming back to, or that I keep adding to, are important. My return to an idea is a good indicator that it is worth carving out some time. For the game, I found myself coming back to that idea and adding more to it and I eventually developed a business plan around it. Sometimes the idea that you can’t stop thinking about (even if you try) is the one you should develop into a project.
2. Figure out where the urge to make side projects is coming from.
They don’t directly relate, but there is a relationship between my side projects and my main gig. Typically, when I have the urge to start spinning up side projects, it tends to be a sign that my daily tasks are more rote or I am not being intellectually challenged. When I started contracting at The California Sunday Magazine, I had a bunch of side projects going. But as work ramped up, it began to take over my voluntary extra learning time. There were a variety of different and challenging problems and it was easy for me to engage with them. This was an important sign for me that the magazine was the right fit. I enjoy the challenge of figuring something out, and when that is part of my day to day responsibilities, I am less likely to start inventing side projects. Sometimes there are aspects of our daily work that feel like a side project and sometimes there are side projects that feel like a slog, but the key is to follow the thing that excites you (see #4).
3. Be honest about your priorities.
I considered working on the game full-time, but didn’t because I realized it would negate why it was fun for me. I wouldn’t be learning and exploring for the sake of it, I would have to make it successful, release a product, and support a team. For the game, I am prioritizing the process over financial motivation. I would rather take an exorbitant amount of time and have fun while doing it, than ruin the process with external pressures. Being honest with yourself about why you are doing something is difficult, but important. If you are doing it for the money, optimize for that. Designers like to say they are doing it for the love or for the learning, but I have a lot of respect for side projects that make money, too.
4. Do the thing that makes you feel alive.
I came across a quote by Howard Thurman that stuck with me, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Our society puts a lot of weight on fields like medicine and we tend to downplay less tangible fields like script writing or visual design. But we don’t need a world populated by miserable neurosurgeons. I believe something the world needs more of is great stories. I’m not talking about hard-hitting journalism, but what it is like to be a human and alive. I get so much out of that, personally, that I am confident other people do, too, and that excites me.